Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, And Provincialism|
by Robert Bothwell And Ian Drummond And John English
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|The Control Of History
by Christopher Moore
THERE is a John Updike story about two undergraduates in the 1950s who set out to rank the English poets in order of excellence. They employ a rigorous and methodical technique of explication that eventually proves that the greatest poet in the canon must be Lord Byron. The narrator is troubled by this outcome, but Ed, the leader of the enterprise, is undismayed. "He has the necessary hardness," concludes Ed, who upon graduation joins the C.I.A., which shares his confidence about having the answers and imposing them on the world.
Leave aside the C.I.A., and a similar confidence informs Canada Since 1945. Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, and John English seek to judge history rather than poetry, but they too proceed by rigorous criteria, and they confidently follow the dictates of their method. Their key to history is macroeconomic policymaking.
Canadian history since 1945 is a story of economic success, they report in the first sentence, so their story is how our governments have guided national economic growth. BD&E are convinced that the best government must be that which has administered macroeconomic policy most successfully, and they do not flinch even when their method points to Louis St. Laurent, prime minister of the prosperous '50s, as the greatest of Canadian prime ministers. He had the necessary mandarins, they might say.
From the authors' clear sense of priorities flow the book's many strengths. They are good on anything statistical and economic, on federal politics and politicians, and on the constitutional
battles that have threatened Ottawa's policymaking power. They show a nice detachment from the momentary crises of the headlines, but they preserve strong opinions, as in their persuasive argument that using the War Measures Act in 1970 was wise, proper, and successful.
Of course, given their method, there is an astonishing range of things the authors must dismiss as irrelevant, much as Updike's Ed refused to discuss Wordsworth and Tennyson on the grounds they were "minor." BD&E will discuss wheat marketing but not Prairie farm society, the Unemployment Insurance Commission but not Newfoundland's 40 years as a have-not province, oil policy but not the new Alberta. They give environmental issues one deeply skeptical paragraph. Arts and culture get more space mostly so they can stress that these are the frills that adorn a well-managed economy. Labour movements, marginal groups, and anything that smacks of class or social structure are pretty much beyond the pale of the BD&E definition of history. Despite all the ink that flowed over foreign investment and foreign control of the Canadian economy in the '60s and '70s, they can hardly bother to discuss the issue. Economic nationalism was clearly minor.
In this revised second edition, BD&E add most of the '80s to their story. As Trudeau yields to Mulroney, the best material here is the Clear, detailed, and sorrowing account of the erosion of federal authority during the constitutional revisions of this decade. The Meech Lake proposals offend them so deeply that they actually quote a journalist's demolition of it, although journalists are a species they mostly hold in contempt.
One might expect free trade to be the climax and culmination of Canada Since 1945. Many readers, whatever their opinion of the trade agreement, will come to the book with the sense that the deal and the debate invoked fundamental things about this nation and the 1980s. BD&E don't think so, and their treatment of the whole issue is brief and flat. They define free trade simply as "another way to raise productivity," and they dismiss the debate as no more than "a characteristic Canadian wrangle." In the BD&E explications of the past, free trade, it seems, is minor.
Bothwell, Drummond, and English have mastered a vast amount of information about Canada's recent halfcentury. Their presentation is always skilful, and somehow their confidence is both provocative and winning. It is perplexing. Somehow they have written a very good book and missed the point about almost everything that matters. Maybe history is not so amenable to control. Maybe Wordsworth had something after all.